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why convert steam to hot water?

We very recently purchased a 1896 Victorian in Michigan with one-pipe steam heat and a newer boiler (about 18 years old).  During the home inspection in March, the house was warm but we observed that there was steam in the crawl space, presumably from leaky steam pipes.  (The house has some basement and some dirt-floor crawlspace.) 

We are in the process of hiring a contractor to have the crawl space dug deeper (for serviceability) and various foundation issues addressed.  The contractor may need to remove some steam pipes to make other repairs.  He is recommending ripping out the entire steam system and replacing it with a hot water heat system including new boiler, copper piping, and baseboard radiators. 

He gave several reasons for this:  one, he fears that the old rusty horizontal pipes will be so brittle that it will be difficult to replace without breaking the vertical pipes also.  Two, he figures that if the steam isn't leaking in the crawl space that it will increase the pressure in the rest of the system, and we'll be springing leaks all over.  Three, the boiler is vented through a horizontal "crock" to the chimney, which is too far away to meet current code.  The chimney also needs work.  So he figures if we replace the boiler with a new high-efficiency boiler, he can vent it outside and easily meet the current codes. 

Are these valid concerns? 

I hesitate to make any changes to the heating system before we've started a heating season and have some understanding of where our specific issues are.  My husband is concerned that the workers will remove this piping and then we'll be under duress to make immediate decisions. 

I'm not sure which of Dan's books to start with. 

Thanks for any guidance you can give!



  • Unknown
    Stick with the Steam System!

    Hi Annette-   While your contractor may be good a digging and enlarging crawl spaces, it doesn't sound though he knows much about residential steam heating. Either that and/or he's trying to sell you a new heating system.

    I'm not sure quite where to start. Let's take the points you mentioned  first.

    Point # 1 - "the old rusty horizontal pipes will be so brittle that it will be difficult to replace without breaking the vertical pipes also"   - While possibly some of the horizontal return pipes might need replacing -especially if it has been in contact with the dirt, the vertical ones are probably fine. I'm a homeowner and have replaced some old piping myself. I don't see where a good professional would have any problems doing the same.

    Point # 2 - " if the steam isn't leaking in the crawl space that it will increase the pressure in the rest of the system, and we'll be springing leaks all over"  Anyone who makes a comment like this knows very little about steam systems. - Residential steam systems were originally designed to run at a maximum of 2 PSI and most run at less than that. It's quite possible that someone, who didn't understand steam heating, has set you boiler to run at a higher pressure than it should be. Do you know how high the pressure is when your boiler turns off?

    Point # 3 - The Chimney - I can't answer this one as I haven't seen the setup and even then I don't know any thing about Michigan code. However since the boiler works now and since Points 1 & 2 are so far off, I 'd suspect the validity Point #3 . If your chimney needs work I'd inquire around and have several different people in chimney business look at it for you and tell you what it needs. You could post some pictures of your boiler and the piping to the chimney on this board. There are some very good Steam Pros on this board who can give you advice on that. Things are rather slow at the moment as it is off  “steam season” so it make take a couple of days to get an answer to your question.

    Dan’s books-  I would suggest you get “The Steamy Deal”


    Read  “We Got Steam Heat” first.  It’s easy, humorous reading, and written so the homeowner can understand it. After a few evenings reading you’ll know a lot more about steam heating and will be able to answer “the point questions” yourself.

    “The Lost Art of Steam Heating” goes into far more detail and explanations but is also written in language the professional and homeowner can understand.  It’s invaluable if you’re going to do work on your steam system. These books have probably saved me easily over 100 times their cost!

    You didn’t say where you were in Michigan. You might want to look in the “Find A Professional” section at the top of this page and see if there is a “steam pro” located near you.

    Don’t use the zip code , scroll down and look in the “States” section. There are a lot of heating professionals around but oddly very few are actually competent with steam systems.  Steam isn’t all that complicated as you will understand when you read  “We Got.....”.

    Steam systems when they are running properly are very comfortable and economical. Most old steam systems have been neglected and just need some moderate knowledgeable “tweeking”to get them back running properly.  Doing this would be far more economical than replacing your present system.

     For a starter, I’d take lots of pictures of all the steam piping and fixtures (radiators etc) and tell your contractor that at this point in time you’re going to stick with your steam system but may consider doing something in the future, several years down the line. Let him see you taking pictures and then he will not have the excuse if they are damaged, “they were like that before”.Taking the pictures will help you understand your system and also if you have questions you will be able to post the pictures on this site.  I have attached a diagram of a simple 1 pipe system. See if you can identify where the different labeled parts are on your own system.  Look for things like the  “Main Vents” etc.  “We Got...” will explain how the individual parts work and what they do.

    If you have more questions don’t hesitate to ask them.

    - Rod
  • Dave in QCA
    Dave in QCA Member Posts: 1,786
    edited June 2010
    Hot Water Baseboard in your 1896 Victorian?

    I was going to reply earlier, but found it so difficult to organize my thoughts when I so completely dissagreed with everything your contractor had told you regarding your heating system.  I hope he is qualified in some other area. 

    I agree with everything that Rod has stated.  However, I would like to make one additional comment.  You have purchased an 1896 Victorian.  I am assuming that you purchased the house because you like that wonderful details and charm that such a home possesses.  I assume that your home probably also has wonderful millwork for baseboards.  Can you imagine what metal baseboard heat would look like?.... Covering up, or mostly covering up your beautiful baseboards, and becoming the focal point in your rooms.   Or, would your rather keep the case iron radiators that have been in your house and keeping it toasty warm for the past 114 years? 

    I thought so!

    Note radiator in this 1906 house in Des Moines, Iowa, and the nice big wood baseboards.  Can't imagine them covered up by metal baseboards 
    Dave in Quad Cities, America
    Weil-McLain 680 with Riello 2-stage burner, December 2012. Firing rate=375MBH Low, 690MBH Hi.
    System = Early Dunham 2-pipe Vacuo-Vapor (inlet and outlet both at bottom of radiators) Traps are Dunham #2 rebuilt w. Barnes-Jones Cage Units, Dunham-Bush 1E, Mepco 1E, and Armstrong TS-2. All valves haveTunstall orifices sized at 8 oz.
    Current connected load EDR= 1,259 sq ft, Original system EDR = 2,100 sq ft Vaporstat, 13 oz cutout, 4 oz cutin - Temp. control Tekmar 279.
  • Patrick_North
    Patrick_North Member Posts: 249
    Hang in there, Annette.

    Another home owner, here.

    Get the books today and don't think twice. Your best ally here is some basic, solid knowldege of steam systems. And don't worry- the books are fun, interesting reads. And did I mention they'll help you save money?

    Case in point: our church is looking to update its heating plant. It's a real mess of a steam system- two (grossly oversized) boilers, underground mains, hacked up piping (hey- things happen over 100 years!)- the works. I can't imagine your system is in worse shape.

    A respected local contractor proposed switching to hot water heat, claiming extra efficiency, money savings, etc, etc, The quote was immense. Luckily the vestry knew I have a healthy interest in steam heat- we're remodeling an old Victorian ourselves and have updated our home steam system. Because I've read the abovementioned books and asked a bunch of questions here on the Wall, I was able to (very amicably) ask the right questions of this contractor.  He didn't begrudge it, but he was clearly not happy to have to own up to the fact that fixing our church's steam system (new boiler, extensive repiping) was less than HALF his quote to rip it out and put in hot water.

    Maybe this guy knows a thing or two about steam and is trying to pull the wool over your eyes. Maybe he doesn't and simply wants to sell you the solution he can provide. With a couple of hours of reading, you'll be able to tell the difference and you can then find a contractor you can trust.

    A final note- as an old house owner myself, the last thing I want is more complications and more ridiculous expenditures in keeping this place together. To those who are unfamiliar, steam heat may seem like a quirky, archaic, inneficient way to heat a home. Let me tell you- a properly functioning steam system is dead simple with VERY little that can go wrong. It is quiet, utterly reliable, and darned efficient. 

    Have fun learning about steam- I did!

    Best of luck,

    Patrick North
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